Nearly a decade old, dubstep is entering into its restless adolescence. I can't remember the last time an established genre felt this dynamic, this much in flux. Fans are spoiled for choice, with every week bringing a panoply of new releases and, just as crucially, new names. Artists with whom we've only recently become familiar are maturing at a prodigious rate, while a new crop of labels and artists from outside the genre's London birthplace-- Bristol, Glasgow, Berlin, the Netherlands-- keep coming out of the woodwork. If the scene's mainstream is defined by its ubiquitous, industrial-strength "wobble," the margins are host to mutation after mutation, as the music absorbs and synthesizes elements of soca, funky, IDM, industrial, hip-hop, downtempo, ambient, classic 2-step garage, and, especially, Detroit techno and dub techno.
The eagerly hypothesized techno/dubstep crossover is no longer a critic's fantasy: it's a given. Artists from both sides of the divide-- Shed, Scuba, 2562, Ramadanman, Kode9, Ben Klock, Andy Stott, MLZ-- are increasingly meeting in the middle, crafting tracks that blend the tempos, hallmarks and quirks of both genres. The Dutch producer Martyn is one of that lot's most versatile talents, and his debut album, Great Lengths shows an appropriately varied and evidently personal set of interpretations of dubstep's present possibilities.
Like many dubstep artists, Martyn came to the genre from drum'n'bass, but he crossed over only comparatively recently. His first records, released in 2005 and 2006 for Marcus Intalex's Revolve:r label, clearly drew from the same spring that a decade before had fed the lush atmospherics of Alex Reece and LTJ Bukem. (It's not all so tranquil; "Nxt 2 U", for Play:musik, sounded like a tech-step rework of Konono No. 1, and hinted at a growing interest in unconventional rhythms and textures.) By 2007's "Broken" (Revolve:r), Martyn had slowed to dubstep's tempo, but he left many of his usual elements-- drifting pads, rapidfire percussive patterns-- intact. The effect was like watching as the spokes of a moving car's wheels seem to flicker backwards and forwards, buoyant, weightless and hovering in place. This, clearly, was Martyn's groove.
With the foundation of his own label, 3024, in 2007, Martyn confirmed his arrival as one of dubstep's distinctive new voices, a reputation he has reinforced across further singles and remixes of Scuba, TRG, Shut Up and Dance, among others. He has simultaneously resisted settling too comfortably into any one sound or scene; he and gauzy hip-hopper Flying Lotus have traded remixes, and he even delved into unadulterated house music on a remix for Detroit's Ican.
Great Lengths is accordingly diverse, but it's also remarkably coherent. Most of its tracks fall within dubstep's stomping ground, clocking somewhere between 130 and 140 BPM and heaving with swing; it's underscored by a powerful bass presence that seems to stretch to infinity. But Martyn also pauses to explore other tempos and cadences: the churning "Seventy Four" is a plodding, dub-techno dirge, while "Elden St." marries 2-step syncopations to techno's steady 4/4 under cover of misty keys and fragmented soul vocals. The ambient interludes "Bridge" and "Brilliant Orange", meanwhile, suggest an affinity for moody soundtrack music. Neither is particularly memorable on its own, but they serve a useful purpose as a kind of mood glue, helping give the album its sense of flow. And Detroit techno's plangent chords carry across almost everything here, including the most broken, driving rhythms.
This isn't Burial: Martyn is much more obviously a student of the dance floor. His rhythms are more cleanly drawn than Burial's, his sounds more pronounced. But a similar moodiness prevails, making this an album that ought to appeal to a wide swathe of listeners, including plenty who might not care about dubstep in the abstract. Even comparatively sprightly cuts like "Little Things" are awash in melancholic strings, and almost every track is driven by fat, stacked chords moving in formation. He's fond of chords voiced like the sampled rave stabs of yore-- blocky, fixed-interval things that lend an odd modal shiver as they go crab-walking up and down the scales. He makes even more out of dub's glancing tone clusters, which mark syncopated time while nervous counterpoints and nimble bass lines fill in the rest of the spectrum. And Martyn's bass is itself a thing to behold: it envelops without ever overpowering, suggesting at once the anchor and the play in the line leading from it.
Even at his most uptempo, Martyn tends to sound guarded, even a little sullen. His rhythms hurtle and slice; there's a flailing desperation lurking behind the funk. At his best, as on tracks like "Vancouver" and "Elden St.", his sounds seem to dissolve into themselves, the groove coiled like a hunched shoulder. It's here, I think, that Martyn sounds most like Martyn. He doesn't always hit his mark; the Spaceape-fronted "Is This Insanity?" sounds like he's merely stapled his trademark shirred chords to a structure modeled on Shackleton's percussive ethno-dubstep. And "krdl-t-grv", to my ears anyway, is too insistent in its two-bar repetitions and strident, detuned harmonies. But every selection on the album points to a particular vision, one expertly carried out in the marriage of force and tenderness, and of passion and craft.
— Philip Sherburne, April 14, 2009